Florida, you have done it again.
The nation’s biggest swing state has given us many suspenseful elections. This year, its gubernatorial race will also provide something of a political laboratory experiment.
Both parties are testing the proposition that, at a time of intense polarization, the old assumptions of what constitutes electability — blandness, caution, middle-ground policies — no longer apply.
In Tuesday’s primary, Republicans, as expected, picked Rep. Ron DeSantis, a candidate so much in the thrall of President Trump that one of his campaign ads featured him reading “The Art of the Deal” to his infant son. His victory had been pretty much a foregone conclusion after Trump endorsed him over Adam Putnam, a Florida political star who has been presumed to be a future governor practically since he was in the playpen.
The big surprise was on the Democratic side. A party that has lost five straight gubernatorial elections upset expectations by rejecting establishment favorite Gwen Graham, a centrist ex-congresswoman who is the daughter of a former governor and senator, in favor of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Gillum supports single-payer health care, wants to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and has regularly called for Trump’s impeachment. He also collected what amounted to a liberal trifecta: an endorsement from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and financing from billionaires Tom Steyer and George Soros.
This is a titanic clash of ideologies, the high-contrast choice that both the left and the right have been wanting.
Florida is not the only place where this sort of tug of war is playing out. Just across the state line in deep-red Georgia, there is another lively gubernatorial race pitting unabashedly liberal Democrat Stacey Abrams, vying to become the first African American female governor in the nation’s history, against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Trump clone who boasted in a campaign ad that he owns a truck “just in case I need to round up criminal illegals.”
But the outcome in the Sunshine State will be viewed as the far more significant signpost, given its outsize role in presidential politics. In 2016, Trump won Florida and its 29 electoral votes by only 1.3 percentage points.
A Gillum victory in November would help make the case that the Democrats’ best hope for winning in 2020 is with a steadfastly liberal candidate running full speed against everything Trump represents; for Republicans, a win by DeSantis would be seen as a sign that the Trump brand is not as fragile as the president’s national approval ratings would suggest.
These hot takes, however, ignore the other big reality of Florida politics: More than a quarter of its 13 million registered voters have declared themselves as having no party affiliation.
Because Florida primaries are closed, none of them voted Tuesday. Given such a stark choice in November, it remains to be seen how they will go. University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who directs a project compiling national election statistics, noted that the state’s unaffiliated voters tend to be younger and Hispanic, which means Gillum starts with “a relative comparative advantage.”
The only thing that is clear about this matchup is that the next nine weeks are going to be ugly.
On his first day as the Republican nominee, DeSantis told Fox News — whose studios have been his de facto campaign headquarters — that Florida should not “monkey this up,” a toxic choice of words to use against an African American opponent. The foghorn was so clear, even Fox News had to issue a statement saying the network does not “condone this language.”
DeSantis refused to apologize, insisting he “didn’t say anything about race.”
This kind of Trumpian race-baiting, if it continues, will surely turn off suburban voters.
But there are other attacks that may stick. Republicans have moved in quickly to attach the “socialist” label to Gillum, and they are also certain to focus on an FBI corruption investigation of Tallahassee city contractors. The mayor says he has been advised he is not a focus of the investigation, but the inquiry could involve some who were close advisers.
The Democrats’ big hope is that with Gillum at the top of their ticket, they can change the face of the electorate, making it a closer reflection of a growing and diverse state.
Gillum has the potential to draw voters, particularly nonwhites and young people, who typically sit out midterm elections. Their off-year absence is a major reason Democrats have come up short time and time again in the state, despite the fact they have nearly a quarter-million more registered voters than the Republicans do.
It is a huge, risky bet. But if Gillum can pull this off, Democrats on the road to 2020 will hear the message: The passing lane is on your left.